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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Romans 12

 

 

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Verse 1-2

‘I therefore plead with you brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And do not be fashioned according to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’

Paul calls on the Roman Christians to perform an act of priestly service (latreian), on the basis of God’s many mercies revealed earlier, by offering their whole beings as a living sacrifice, totally devoted to God (holy), and free from all spot of blemish (acceptable), something which it can be through the righteousness of Christ given to His people.

‘Therefore.’ He pleads with his readers on the basis ofthe mercies of Godthat he has been outlining. These have included being accounted as righteous through faith, having received the gift of the righteousness of God in Christ, having been crucified with Christ and having been raised again in Him, having received newness of life, having experienced the power of the Spirit at work within them, and having been conjoined together with Christ and with each other, in the olive tree of the true Israel.

They are called on ‘to present (yield, compare Romans 6:13; Romans 6:19) their bodies as a holy and acceptable living sacrifice to God.’, being united with Christ in His sacrifice of Himself (Romans 6:3-11). They are thus to see themselves:

· As presenting to God (yielding) their bodies (that is, themselves physically) as a living freewill offering (to be a continual offering that never dies but is continually and willingly offered), thus dying to themselves, and being totally committed to Him. They must not only be willing to die for Christ, but to ‘die daily’ (Luke 9:23), so that He might live through them (Galatians 2:20). In view of Romans 6:1-11 this must include the idea of dying with Christ and rising with Him in newness of life, so as to serve Him fully. The sacrifice is a living one because the offerers partake in Christ’s risen life. They walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3). The verb ‘present’ is in the aorist. In one sense it is once for all, but because of our own weakness it has to be an act constantly repeated.

· As being totally set apart to God in order that He may take possession of them (being made holy). It is to be a ‘holy’ sacrifice, one totally set apart to God and endued by His Holy Spirit, seen as something Wholly belonging to God. Its very holiness should prevent any possibility of again becoming involved with ‘the course of this world’.

· As being acceptable to God through receiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The only acceptable sacrifice to God is now through our Lord Jesus Christ, on the basis of His redemption and atonement. As a result they are made without spot or blemish in His sight, and they are called on to make that a reality in practise.

· This is their spiritual/reasonable service. The word logikos can signify both spiritual and rational. The worship of the Christian has to be both. It is positive worship, carried along by the Spirit, coming from the heart (unlike much of the old formal worship), and it is rational, coming from a transformed, rational mind. The Christian should never be foolish.

So this presenting of themselves to God is to be their continual act of spiritual service, evidencing the work of the Spirit within them, and their offering is to be holy and acceptable to God in all that they do. Just as the Old Testament sacrifices had to be ‘holy and without blemish’ so must the Christian sacrifice. Nothing less is worthy of God. Our lives are to be such therefore that at any moment they could be presented to Him and be seen as totally acceptable in His sight.

The words translated ‘spiritual’(logikos) can also mean ‘reasonable’. And this life of dedicated and practical worship is to be lived out in a spiritual and rational manner by not being conformed to this world (or ‘this age’), with its desires and lusts and vanities (thus by not having the mind of the flesh), but instead, by being transformed by the renewal of their mind (responding to the mind of the Spirit, by responding to the life of Christ within them - Romans 6:3; Romans 8:9-10) so that they might demonstrate to the world and to angels and to men, (and to themselves), the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. It is a call to total submission and yieldedness.

The concept of sacrifice must not, of course, be overpressed. Only Jesus Christ could be a guilt offering and an atoning sacrifice. We are, therefore, more to be seen as whole offerings, thanksgiving offerings and freewill offerings, excluding the atoning element that even they necessarily had within them, for in our case, full atonement having already been made by Christ, no further atonement is necessary. The element that Paul has in mind is the total offering of ourselves in ‘new life’, having died with Christ and risen with Him.

‘Present your body.’ This counteracts much of the teaching around at the time among Greek speaking people which considered the body as evil, and but the prison-house of the spirit. According to their ideas it was the release of the spirit by various means that could finally involve them with God through a series of intermediaries. Paul renounces such an idea. He emphasises that we are to offer our bodies directly to God.

‘Do not be conformed to this age.’ The Christian lives in an age when sin is paramount, and when the world is ruled by the desires of the flesh, by the desires of the mind, and by false ambition (the pride of life). See 1 John 2:15. An age when it lies in the arms of evil (or of the Evil One). See 1 John 5:19. Notice the passive voice. The unbeliever is not in control of his life. He is controlled and shaped by the spirit of the age, indeed, ‘the spirit now at work among the sons of disobedience’ (Ephesians 2:2). But the Christian has died to these things in Christ, and has risen to newness of life. He no longer has any part in them. He does not allow himself to be controlled by the world’s straitjacket, but is free to live a pure and holy life for Christ. And this is possible because he has been transformed by the renewal of his mind. He is renewed in the spirit of his mind (Romans 8:2-16), and ‘has put on the new man which, after God, has been created in righteousness and true holiness’ (Ephesians 4:23-24). He walks in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). He no longer sees things as the world sees them. He does not look on the things that are temporal, but on the things that are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18). He has ‘the mind of Christ’ illuminated by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:16). But in saying this we must not overlook the fact that the mind of Christ is especially revealed in His teaching in the Gospels. Anything that is not fulfilling that is not the mind of Christ.

‘Good, acceptable and complete.’ By their minds being transformed they will understand what is fully required by the will of God, thereby ‘proving’ in their hearts 1). what God will see as good, 2). what God will see as acceptable, 3). and what is perfectly in accord with God’s will.


Verses 1-14

1). Christian Living (12:1-13:14).

In this passage Paul calls on God’s people so to present their bodies as a living offering to God, through their having died with Christ and risen with Him (Romans 6:1-11), that they live lives of total purity and goodness. This is then spelled out in detail, first in relation to the church, and then in relation to the world. And he concludes the section with the requirement that they ‘put on the LORD Jesus Christ’, and make no provision for the flesh.


Verses 1-33

A Call To Make Real In The Church And In The World The Righteousness Which They Have Received (12:1-15:33).

This section moves from the indicative to the imperative. Having outlined the ways of God in salvation:

· in applying to His people the righteousness of Christ (Romans 3:24 to Romans 4:25),

· in uniting them with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11),

· in making them righteous within by His Spirit (Romans 8:1-18),

· and in having demonstrated God’s sovereign activity in the world which has resulted in a new olive tree composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 9:6 to Romans 11:32),

Paul now calls on all Christians as a consequence (‘by the mercies of God’) to totally consecrate themselves to God’s service. It is an urgent call to action in response to what God has done for them. He is calling on them to live out the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:3) that they have received, something which will result in:

· their consecration of themselves to God (Romans 12:1-2).

· their commitment to help each other (Romans 12:3-8).

· their living of a consistent Christian life before outsiders (Romans 12:9-21).

· their having a right attitude towards the powers that be (Romans 13:1-7).

· their responsibility to reveal the love of Christ through them (Romans 13:8-10).

· and their living in the light of the urgency of the times (Romans 13:11-14).

We must not see these chapters as simply moral instruction added on to the main letter, but as in integral part of the letter. They describe the behaviour that will result from following the mind of the Spirit. Without them that would have been incomprehensible to many of them. And we should note how similar exhortation has been made earlier (Romans 6:12-23). Here, however, that is expanded on.

The section may be divided up as follows:

1). Christian Living (12:1-13:14).

· A call to total consecration (Romans 12:1-2).

· Each member to play his appropriate part in building up Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-8).

· A call to fulfil the Law of Christ (Romans 12:9-21).

· The Christian’s attitude towards the state (Romans 13:1-7).

· The Christian’s responsibility to love (Romans 13:8-10).

· Living in crisis days (Romans 13:11-14).

2). Christian Freedom And Consideration For The Views Of Others (14:1-15:6).

· Christian freedom to be tempered by consideration for the brethren with regard to food fetishes and sabbath observance (Romans 14:1-23).

· The strong should help the weak, and unity must be foremost (Romans 15:1-6).

3). The Ministry Of The Messiah Is To Both Jews And Gentiles (15:7-33).

· Christ made a minister of circumcision in order to confirm the promises to the Jews and reach out with mercy to the Gentiles (Romans 15:7-13).

· The extent and focal point of Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles as a minister of the Messiah Jesus to the Gentiles (Romans 15:14-21).

· His aim to visit Rome after he has ministered to Jewish believers in taking the contributions of the Gentile churches to the churches in Jerusalem, in view of which he requests prayer that he may be delivered form the hands of antagonistic Jews (Romans 15:22-33).

4). Final Greetings (16:1-27).

· Final greetings and exhortations (Romans 16:1-16).

· Exhortation to beware of those who divide the church and of the need to be wise to what is good, with the assurance that God will cause them to triumph against Satan’s deceitfulness (Romans 16:17-20).

· Greetings from fellow-labourers in the Gospel (Romans 16:21-23).

· Final ascription of praise to God for His faithfulness and ability to establish His people in the light of the mystery of the Gospel now revealed (Romans 16:24-27).


Verse 3

‘For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but so to think as to think soberly, according as God has dealt to each man a measure of faith.’

The consequence of being transformed by the renewing of our mind is that we begin to look at everything differently. The arrogance of this world is replaced by a new humility, as we recognise that we have moved into a different sphere. Thus the Christian is circumspect in his attitude and behaviour towards his brothers and sisters in Christ, recognising in all humility his great need to serve God only up to the level of his faith. Great gifts do not make great Christians unless they are exercised in accordance with true faith given by God. If our gifts are not utilised in total dependence on God then they can be a hindrance rather than a benefit.

So Paul exhorts them as one to whom Apostleship has been granted (Romans 1:5), an Apostleship accompanied by the gracious activity of God in guiding his thinking. He himself is acting according to his measure of faith. And he warns that the members of the body are to be wary of having too high an opinion of themselves. Rather they are to make a sober assessment of what gifts they have been given and what part they are to play, under God’s guidance, in the maintenance of the body, in accordance with the faith that God has given to each one of them. The criterion is to be, not their natural gifts, but their level of faith and dependence on God.

It is noteworthy that he does not see them as being controlled by the leadership, but as having a certain autonomy as they consider the part they are to play in the body of Christ. There was an element of freedom in their exercising of their gifts. We can compare the same situation in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Nevertheless freedom brings responsibility, so they are to ensure that they act within God’s enabling. It would, no doubt, be seen by Paul as something to be watched over by the ‘overseers (episkopoi), but the Spirit could override the overseers.


Verses 3-8

Each Member Is To Play His Appropriate Part In Building Up Christ’s Body (12:3-8).

In Romans 11:16-24 God was seen as ministering to His people in establishing and building up the olive tree which represented Messiah and His people, with branches removed or added according to His purpose. Now we see the manward side of that operation as the branches themselves, the members who are one body in Christ (as they were one in the Messiah as the olive tree), are to cooperate in supplying the needs of all the members (branches), maintaining the health of the body (the olive tree), each being careful to recognise his own position in the scheme of things.


Verse 4-5

‘For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another.’

There is a clear resemblance between this description of God’s people as a body, and the description of it as the olive tree (Romans 11:16-24), the similarity lying in the fact that they are one whole, and yet separate members of one whole. We may see a difference lying in the fact that the olive tree had had included in it the branches of rejected Israel which had been broken off, but the same may be said of the body (John 15:1-6). In neither case is what has been broken off a genuine constituent of the true olive tree and the true body. The other difference is that the olive tree had indicated ideal Israel in its association with the promises of God and with the Messiah. This indicates the living body in which His people are united as one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), in the body which IS Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12), in what is the new nation of Matthew 21:43, in the new Vine of John 15:1-6. Note that the body is never seen as distinct from Christ, for the body is Christ’s body into which the members have been incorporated. It is Christ Himself Who is the body. It is therefore wrong to speak of the church as ‘the body of Christ on earth’. Rather the church has been united with Him in His heavenly body, and is in the heavenlies in Him (Ephesians 2:1-6), while physically operating on earth.

But the consequence of this is that His body has many members, each having his part to play in building up the whole. Each does not have the same office, for differing gifts have been distributed to some throughout the body. But all are to remember that they are one body in Him, and must therefore maintain unity, being members one of another (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27).


Verse 6

‘Whether prophecy, (let us prophesy) according to the proportion of our faith;’

The gift of prophecy was an important one in the early church, when there was no New Testament and the Spirit guided men in interpreting the (Old Testament) Scriptures for the benefit of the new community. It was not basically a gift of foretelling the future (although that did occur), but a gift of presenting the truth adequately. And it was not to be uncontrolled. In 1 Corinthians we learn that what was prophesied had to be assessed by other prophets (1 Corinthians 14:29-32). And here he stresses that it should be given ‘according to the proportion of our faith’. But in the New Testament faith is not a nebulous thing. It is faith in a revealed body of truth. So the prophet is both not to go beyond his own spiritual ability, and beyond the true knowledge which results from truly believing in what has been revealed. In other words, beyond the teaching which is in accordance with the traditions of the Apostles as maintained within the early church and finally laid down in the New Testament.

Any prophet or any church which goes beyond what is found there is to be brought back by other prophets and churches to that body of revealed truth. Anything beyond that is speculation.


Verse 7

‘Or ministry, (let us give ourselves) to our ministry, or he who teaches, (let him give himself) to his teaching,’

All Christians are to keep themselves to what they do best in accordance with the gift(s) given to them by God. Thus those who serve in the church in different ways are to give themselves to that service, and those who teach are to give themselves to their teaching, fulfilling their God-given responsibilities as to the Lord. The word for service indicates mainly catering to the needs of others in every way, something of which Jesus was the prime example (Mark 10:45). It would include ensuring that all had their needs met (see Acts 6:1-6), both spiritual and physical. Teaching involved ensuring that guidance was given in accordance with Scripture and ‘the testimony of Jesus’, in the case of women, often by women (e.g. Titus 2:3-5).


Verse 8

‘Or he who exhorts, (let him give himself) to his exhorting, he who gives, (let him do it) with liberality, he who rules, with diligence, he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.’

Exhortation and encouragement (not necessarily just in preaching) was a separate gift, as some were enabled by the Holy Spirit so as to stir fellow-Christians up to obedience, and encourage them in their daily lives, both spiritually and materially. For there were no social services to cater to the physical needs of the members, and Christians were therefore to fulfil this role, especially towards their fellow-members. The church was to provide the social services. Thus the ability to give humbly and unostentatiously in a liberal manner was another gift of the Spirit (compare Romans 12:13).

The word translated ‘liberality’ means ‘with singleness of heart and purpose’. It was to be genuine, unselfish giving. They were not to be like those who, when giving in the Temple, made sure that everyone saw what they were giving. Compare Matthew 6:1-4. The gifts would then be used in the ongoing ministry of the church, including the benefiting of those in the church who were in physical need, and who had no one to care for those needs (see 1 Timothy 5:3-4). In return those who benefited had a responsibility of continuing in prayer (1 Timothy 5:5).

Those who administered the affairs of the church were to do it with due diligence. It is noteworthy that ‘ruling’ was not seen as the primary gift (it comes well down the list), or as making someone especially important. It was to be carried out as a service with true humility, not as something that put the person above others. Meanwhile those whom the Spirit enabled in acts of mercy and compassion (compare Romans 16:1-2) were to do it cheerfully. The whole body were to pull together in their concern the one for the other.


Verse 9

‘Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cleave to what is good.’

As befits a depiction of the teaching of Jesus the list commences with the requirement to love truly. We are called on to reveal love in our lives, love for our fellow-Christians, and love for our fellowman, a love that is genuine and true. Note that he assumes that the Christian will ‘love’. It is so basic to being a Christian that it does not have to be ‘required’ of them. Rather his emphasis is on what kind of love it should be. It is not to be like the love of an actor playing a part. It is to be genuine and from the heart. Such love was at the very heart of the teaching of Jesus. For with regard to our fellow-Christians Jesus said, ‘this I command you, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). ‘In this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for the other’ (John 13:35). It is a self-giving love. We are thus to love with a love like the love that Jesus has for us, a love which is sure, pure and permanent, a love which never fails. A good description of this love is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, a passage which we should retain in our hearts. And towards all men we are to be ‘perfect in love’, even towards our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). We are to love our neighbour, and the stranger who is among us, in the same way as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Leviticus 19:34).

This love will be revealed in our hating of what is evil or injurious, and our clinging firmly to what is good or helpful. This is an important point. Love is concerned always to root out evil, not by being judgmental, but by its own example and purity and determination. It ever strives for the highest good. Thus in Amos 5:15 we are told to ‘hate the evil and love the good’, words which parallel this verse. Compare also Psalms 97:10. Love does not compromise with what is evil or injurious. Rather it hates it because of the harm it does. So what is evil is firmly to be put aside, it is to be abhorred. But in contrast we are to stick firmly to what is good like glue. It is a life choice. We must hate all that causes harm to others. Our whole lives must be directed towards what is good, and honourable, and true. See Philippians 4:8.


Verses 9-21

A Call To Fulfil The Law Of Christ And Of The Scriptures. The Working Out Of Love (12:9-21).

Having dealt with what was necessary for the edifying and upbuilding of the body of Christ, Paul now turns to what is required of Christians as they live ‘in newness of life’ (Romans 6:3-4). In the terms of chapter 6 we are to be ‘slaves of righteousness’ (Romans 6:18). The injunctions appear in one sense to be a miscellany, but they cover various aspects of daily experience, and they present us with a picture of the full-orbed Christian life. We can see behind the exhortations that follow both the teaching of Jesus, and that of the Old Testament Scriptures (specifically in Romans 12:19). They present a general guide for living, and a call for Christians to let their love work itself out, both in the church fellowship, and in the world


Verse 10

‘In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another, in honour preferring one another,’

With regard to love of our fellow-Christians it is to be a love of ‘tender affection’. This is a word used of strong family affection. As Christians we are members of a family. And we are to show it. Some members may be less loveable than others, but we are to make no distinctions. The same love must be demonstrated towards all, even the unlovely. And one way in which we will do this is by ‘in honour preferring one another’. Our concern will be that others receive the plaudits that they deserve, and get the opportunity of earning them. Compare Philippians 2:3, ‘in lowliness of mind, each accounting the other as better than himself’. There is to be no self-seeking, but a desire for the elevating of others.

‘In honour preferring one another.’ The problem with this translation is that it does not quite accord with the Greek in that the word translated ‘preferring’ really means, ‘going before, leading’ and then ‘setting an example’. Thus we might translate as ‘in honour, setting an example to one another’. In other words by our honourable behaviour being a good example to all.


Verses 10-13

Love Expressing Itself In The Family Of Believers (12:10-13).

While the injunctions that follow in Romans 12:10-13 are not necessarily to be limited to benefiting the family, it is clear that love for our believing brothers and sisters is paramount. They above all will benefit by our tender affection towards one another, by our upholding of each other, by our diligent service of the LORD, by our eyes being kept on the future blessings, and by our provision of the necessities of life and of hospitality. Indeed it is they who should be our first concern. But such a spirit will undoubtedly reach out wider into the world.


Verse 11

‘In diligence not slothful (in zeal not flagging), fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.’

It is necessarily the church which will benefit most by the zeal of God’s people in serving the LORD, for their fellow-members are their prime responsibility, but the wider outreach must not be overlooked. Indeed, while evangelising is of prime importance, it will only usually arise where there is a strong church fellowship. It is significant that this instruction to be diligent and on fire follows the requirement for ‘sincere love’, and does not precede it. The point is that having zeal and fire is good, but that without love it may well be misplaced or even misused. On the other hand if our love is genuine it must certainly express itself in our giving of ourselves in love. Thus there must be no flagging in the diligence with which we go about living out our spiritual lives, no half-heartedness, no holding back. We are to give our all. And it is to be with a spirit that is at boiling point, aflame with love and dedication, a spirit on fire, remembering that we are serving the LORD, not men (compare Ephesians 6:5-8).

Many would see ‘spirit’ here as requiring a capital S, and this would tie in with Romans 8:1-16. Thus we could read ‘fervent in the Spirit’, recognising that it is only He Who can maintain our spiritual momentum. It is through Him and by His direction that we are to serve the Lord. And it is He Who maintains the fervency of our spirits. However, in the parallel use in Acts 18:25 the phrase ‘fervent in spirit’ most probably refers to the human spirit, although as being stirred up by the Holy Spirit. Thus the small ‘s’ is probably correct, but all would recognise that the fervency had to be stirred up by the Holy Spirit.

‘Serving the LORD.’ We may see two emphases here. The first in the fact that all our zeal and fire must have in mind that we are in His service. It is as His privileged servants that we are to live, with all the dedication that that requires, acknowledging that He is ‘the LORD’. But secondly it is a reminder that we are to do all as in His sight. Our zeal must not be misplaced. Our fervency must not be self-directed or group-directed. Our concern must be to please Him. Thus it is the LORD and His concerns that must be primary, not our own particular viewpoints. His will must always take first place, and we should note that that is not being achieved if we fail to honour all our brothers and sisters, eve though they may not see things as we do in every way.


Verse 12

‘Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer,’

Having spoken of the upward look (fervent in the Spirit, serving the LORD), Paul now considers the forward look by which Christians remain steadfast in the face of the future, thus maintaining the stability and strength of the church. We are to rejoice because of the hope that is set before us, we must patiently endure in whatever tribulation comes to us, and we must continue steadfastly in prayer, recognising that we can put all in His hands. The way ahead for God’s people will not be easy. That is why we need to walk step by step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) with our hearts fixed on the goal, that is on the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). This is our ‘hope’, that one day we will be with Him (1 John 3:1-2). And it will enable us to face all that the future holds, as we recognise that tribulation counts for nothing in the light of our glorious future (Romans 8:17-18; Romans 8:23). Note that in Romans 8:26, where the Godward side was being considered, it was the Spirit Whose intercession on our behalf in the face of tribulation was to prevail. Here it is we who must continue steadfastly in prayer. Both are necessary if we are to prevail, with our prayer being sustained by His.


Verse 13

‘Communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to (pursuing) hospitality.’

And as pilgrims on life’s journey (1 Peter 2:11) we are to aid our fellow pilgrims en route, as we ensure the meeting of their necessities (food and clothing) where needed, and provide them with hospitality (Matthew 25:35-36). Thus we aid in the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to His disciples (Matthew 6:33). Note that hospitality has to be ‘pursued with vigour’. It was a privilege that was to be ‘sought eagerly’, and indeed carried the assurance that it would result in blessing (Matthew 10:12-13). In Paul’s day such hospitality was especially important, for on the whole inns were not pleasant places to be, whilst often those who were serving Christ, (and there were many travelling around in His service), were subjected to harassment either by the mobs or by the authorities, just as Jesus had warned (Matthew 10:14). Paul himself had benefited by such hospitality. Thus a welcoming environment was a great blessing to the travelling Christian, even though it could sometimes be costly for all concerned (compare Genesis 19:9-10; Judges 19:22).


Verse 14

‘Bless those who persecute you, bless, and curse not.’

The first call is to bless those who persecute us, and not to curse them. The first clause basically repeats the teaching of Jesus, where He said, ‘pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44; compare Luke 6:28; 1 Peter 3:9), where the intention was to have their well-being at heart. The last three words echo the words of James in James 3:9-11, ‘out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing -- these things ought not to be’. Both can be seen as fulfilling Jesus’ requirement that we love our enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27; Luke 6:35). Such an attitude towards persecution was unknown in the ancient world. Thus the Christian is to respond to persecution with words of love. He is to accept his persecution as from the hand of God. Indeed he is to rejoice in it knowing that great is his reward in Heaven (Matthew 5:11-12).


Verses 14-18

Commands To Love All (12:14-18).

Having looked at the needs of believers, Paul now turns his attention to the need for those who have experienced the mercies of God to demonstrate love towards all men, including, of course, believers. These injunctions commence with the requirement that we love even our enemies who persecute us (Romans 12:14), and they end with the need to be seen as honourable in the sight of ‘all men’, and with a desire that believers might be at peace with ‘all men’. They thus summarise our responsibility towards all mankind. However, having said that, included among them are injunctions that seemingly have the church in mind (Romans 12:16 would appear mainly to refer to behaviour and attitude to be revealed among believers, even though more widely applicable).


Verse 15

‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.’

The Christian should be an expert at getting alongside people in order to share with them their joys and sorrows. Thus he will share in people’s rejoicing, and will feel for the miserable in their misery. This is not an excuse for revelling, even though it was common practise to share in people’s joys by feasting with them. It is rather expressing the importance of entering into people’s feelings, whether cheerful or otherwise. The idea is to share with them in their inner feelings. Compare Job 30:25, and see 1 Corinthians 12:26 where it specifically has Christians in mind. The idea of weeping with those who weep was of course commonplace at funerals, and was encouraged by the practise of having professional mourners. But Paul is applying it to the sorrows of everyday life. The idea here is of expressing consideration and concern for others, and entering into their feelings.


Verse 16

‘Be of the same mind one towards another. Do not set your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Do not be wise-minded in your own conceits.’

These three injunctions place great emphasis on how we ‘think in our minds’. They describe an attitude of mind permanently taken up. The first is positive, the second negative then positive, the third negative, describing how we should think, and how we should not think. They would appear mainly to have behaviour within the fellowship in mind, but also have a wider application, for the Christian should never be involved in battles for supremacy in spheres where all are ambitious. Their thoughts should be in another direction. The reason that these injunctions are included in this series of injunctions which have mankind as a whole in mind is probably because it then leads on to the next three injunctions. Peace and unity within the fellowship leads on to a desire for peace and unity in the world

‘Being of the same mind one towards another’, (being harmonious in our dealings with each other), includes not showing partiality, but emphasises more a harmonious attitude towards each other, especially in the case of the strong-minded, both in the fellowship and in the home. We will not always agree with each other, but we should disagree in a state of harmony. Oneness is the key. Disagreement over matters of daily living and daily Christian service, should be in love, and include having a constant desire for such unity. Love should rule over all. Indeed such unity among believers was a main emphasis of Jesus in His final words to His disciples (John 13:34-35; John 15:17). His last prayer included a prayer for such unity among those who believed in Him (John 17:20-21). But it also has wider application than just to the fellowship, for harmonious relations should be sought with all men, as Romans 12:18 makes clear.

‘Do not set your mind on high (exalted) things, but condescend to (allow yourself to be carried along by, give yourself to) things that are lowly.’ Ambition to fulfil ourselves through the guidance of the Spirit is good, but in the church it should never have the aim of achieving high position or of being honoured. Self-exaltation is disapproved of. Rather our ambition should be to follow the example of Christ Who was ‘meek and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:29). Those who think themselves too good for lowly tasks are not revealing the mind of Christ (see Mark 10:44-45). True Christians will rather therefore involve themselves in lowly things, seeking to fulfil them to their best ability. If God should then determine for them a role of leadership, they will engage in it, but they will engage in it humbly, recognising their own unworthiness. It should never, however, be our ambition. In the Christian fellowship the one who has a high opinion of himself is not suited for the position that he seeks, for he will rely on his own abilities rather than on the Spirit. This is not an excuse for inactivity, it is a warning against overweening ambition. ‘Love does not thrust itself into prominence, is not puffed up’ (1 Corinthians 13:4). Those who are faithful in that which is least, can be entrusted with that which is much (Luke 16:10).

‘Do not be wise-minded in your own conceits (or more literally ‘in the sight of yourselves’).’ Compare Proverbs 3:7, ‘do not be wise in your own eyes (in the sight of yourselves)’, a verse which was almost certainly in Paul’s mind, and is there connected with the need to fear God. The warning here is of being too clever for our own good, or for the good of the fellowship. There is no one more dangerous to unity than the man who thinks that he is always right, and that his way is always the best way. If we cannot carry people along with us in our thinking, perhaps we are going in the wrong direction. Certainly we will cause disunity.


Verse 17-18

‘Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lies, be at peace with all men.’

We might summarise these injunctions as ‘seek to get on with people’. The first warns against retaliation. The second requires that we genuinely reveal ourselves as being honourable. The third calls on us to be at peace with all.

‘Render to no man evil for evil.’ The warning here is against retaliation (compare Colossians 3:13). Rather, as Jesus taught us, we should behave towards them as we would want them to behave towards us (Matthew 7:12). Indeed, He condemned the attitude of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Matthew 5:38-42), and insisted that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who use us badly (Matthew 5:43-45).

‘Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men.’ Rather than retaliating and showing ourselves up in the wrong light, we are to put our thoughts into behaving is such a way as to win the approval of honourable men (compare Proverbs 3:4). He is not by this saying that we should follow the world’s viewpoint, but is rather recognising that honourable men exist even in the non-Christian world, and that Christians ought to be even more honourable than them, as, in the last analysis, Christian moral standards are higher than theirs. But the underlying point is that we should never by our behaviour bring the Gospel into disrepute (compare 1 Peter 2:12). Note that it is ‘in the sight of all men’. There is nothing good about doing things of which the world disapproves, except, of course, when that disapproval arises because we are truly following Christ and fulfilling His commands.

‘If it be possible, as much as in you lies, be at peace with all men.’ Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (i.e. be seen as behaving like God)’ (Matthew 5:9). Making peace in society is to be the aim of the Christian. ‘Inasmuch as in you lies’, that is, ‘as far as it lies within your ability’. Paul recognises that sometimes the world will not accept our offer of peace. He himself had wide experience of causing contention wherever he went, but it was not because of his attitude and behaviour. It was because men were disturbed by the truth. But his general aim was to be conciliatory. In the same we should make every effort to be on good terms with all men, even with the most obstreperous.

We Are To Overcome Evil By Goodness

Paul finishes his call for lives of true righteousness by stressing that vengeance must be left in the hands of God. It is not for us to take revenge. Rather we should respond to evil with goodness.


Verse 19

‘Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath (of God), for it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me, I will recompense, says the Lord.’

Paul advises the Christians in Rome, on the basis of Scripture, that they should leave vengeance in the hands of God, Who will surely recompense men for wrongdoing because He is the righteous Judge. They are not to avenge themselves, but to give place to ‘the wrath’. This is presumably the wrath mentioned in Romans 1:18 and is not therefore limited to the final judgment. (In Romans 13:5 it is exercised by the Roman government). The Scripture is probably taken from Deuteronomy 32:35 where MT has ‘vengeance is mine, and recompense’. This may have been combined by Paul with Jeremiah 5:9, ‘shall I not visit (in judgment) for these things? says the LORD’. Notice that Hebrews 10:30 supports Paul’s rendition, and suggests that the citation could be found in this form somewhere in a current text. (It is found in some Aramaic Targums). It is, however, a reminder that the wrath of God is coming on the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 5:6). We should therefore give place to God’s wrath, recognising that such judgment is outside our remit. Our concern should be to deliver men from under the wrath of God by bringing them to Jesus Christ.


Verse 20

“But if your enemy hungers, feed him, if he thirsts, give him to drink, for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

These words are based on Proverbs 25:21-22, and the first part is certainly indicative of the kind of response urged by Jesus towards our enemies. The idea is that we should not only give hospitality to those who love us, but also to those who hate us, and the thought is probably intended to be interpreted more widely as signifying that we should always do good in response to evil.

The problem clearly lies with the meaning of the last clause, “for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” There are a number of suggested alternatives:

1) That this signifies that by showing love to them we will be pouring out judgment on them. This does not mean that we are to do these things with a view to this, in other words in order to obtain vengeance, but simply indicates that that is what will necessarily follow if they do not repent of their ways. ‘The wicked will be brought into judgment’. This would tie in with the fact that coals of fire are seen in the Old Testament as manifestations of the approach of God in judgment on the enemies of the Psalmist (2 Samuel 22:9; 2 Samuel 22:13; Psalms 18:8; Psalms 18:12; Psalms 140:10; Psalms 11:6).

2) That it signifies that we will be covering them with ‘burning pangs of shame’, in that it will result in remorse burning within them as they see our reaction to their enmity. This was possibly to be seen as having a hope of bringing them to repentance. This might be seen as supported by the ancient Egyptian practise of carrying a tray of burning coals on the head in order to indicate contrition.

3) That it refers to a practise of demonstrating gratitude or giving praise to a slave by pouring literal coals of fire into a bowl which they had placed on their head, indicating an act of kindness to someone who might otherwise have no access to fire. This idea is not as yet attested anywhere, but it would certainly go along with the spirit of what Paul has previously been saying, and with Romans 12:21.


Verse 21

‘Do not become overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

If a Christian responds to evil by doing evil, he has been ‘overcome by evil’. It has brought him down to the level of the other person. He has been defeated. But if he responds by doing good then he overcomes evil. And not only does he then triumph over evil, he might also triumph over his enemy by bringing him to repentance. There are few who, having a kindness shown to them, do not respond by being ashamed.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Romans 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/romans-12.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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